A man of appetite

A man of appetite, was Fats Waller. Like many a sensualist, he was the son of a preacher man, born in 1904 in New York State.

Astonishingly gifted, he was playing piano and organ in churches by the age of ten, and worked as a professional cinema organist while in his teens. He moved into jazz and vaudeville, and during the Roaring Twenties he roared. He composed for and played with the cream of Black American music: Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Sara Martin, everyone. He hit the big time himself in the mid-1930s, performing as Fats Waller and His Rhythm. In the course of eight years, the ensemble recorded more than 150 78rpm records.

3059-aThe mix of high-class jazz musicianship and Waller’s exuberant vocals produced a string of massive hits such as “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter”, “My Very Good Friend the Milkman”, “The Joint is Jumping,” “Honeysuckle Rose” … so many more it is hard to know where to start and end.

Along with the Rhythm records, Waller also recorded a huge output of piano and organ solos and maintained a punishing touring schedule.

How did he do it? The short answer is, at great cost. He died in 1943, aged only 39, of pneumonia. Colin Larkin’s Encylopedia of Popular Music paints the picture:

His life has been one of excess. Enormous amounts of food and liquor meant that his weight varied between 285 and 310 lbs – ‘a girthful of the blues’. Days of carousing were followed by equal amounts of sleeping, not necessarily alone.

(For those more familiar with the metric system, he weighed as much as 141 kg.)

This track was released in Australia in the 1950s, and was recorded in about 1939. It is a lyrical lightweight, but listen to the piano (the signature “Harlem Stride” of the left hand, melding with solos from both himself and others) and the warmth and charisma of the vocal. This was all, remember, done in one take.

Fats Waller was, shall we say, no lifestyle coach. But he is one of the great composers and performers of jazz and popular music. Maybe even any music.

  • Artist: Fats Waller and His Rhythm
  • Title: You meet the Nicest People in Your Dreams / Honey Hush
  • Format: 10” shellac disc, 78rpm
  • Label: Regal Zonophone
  • Catalogue: G24220
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: unknown (released mid-1950s, recorded c. 1939)

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Poor old Johnny Ray

Poor old Johnny Ray …

This was a first line of “Come On Eileen”, which was a huge hit in the early 1980s for a UK band, Dexy’s Midnight Runners. I loved the song, but I was a teenager and had no idea who Johnny Ray was, so asked my Dad.

“Hmmph. He was a pop star. He was the first of the Screamers,” he said.

Ray 1956 aPuzzled, I asked what he meant. It emerged that it wasn’t Johnny Ray who screamed, but his young female fans. You know the hysterical screaming which made the Beatles pretty much inaudible when they played live? Apparently this meme started with Johnny Ray.

My Dad was a conservative soul. He loved music, but he believed it had reached perfection in the works of J.S. Bach, and been going downhill ever since, with the possible exception of Gilbert and Sullivan. So, he was never going to approve of Dexy’s Midnight Runners, or indeed Johnny Ray.

He had a point about the screaming, mind.

That was all I knew about Johnny Ray until I bought this 10” 78rpm disc. It is one of the “G.S.” collection, and came out in 1956. This was right at the end of shellac as a popular medium, and shows that “G.S.”, though fond of jazz and swing, liked the emerging pop of the fifties as well.Ray AM

The record stands as a monument of this transition. A jazz classic, Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, is given a doo-wop treatment by a rising rock star. The B-side is altogether different: in “Walk Along with Kings”, Ray shows himself a strong singer of a straight gospel which even my Dad could not disapprove of.

But I would wager this record against a mint condition copy of the first release of “Love Me Do” that it was “Ain’t Misbehavin’” that G.S. bought it for.

  • Artist: Johnny Ray
  • Title: Ain’t Misbehavin’
  • Track: Side A “Ain’t Misbehavin’”
  • Format: 10” shellac disc, 78rpm
  • Label: Coronet KP-032
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1952